The Columbia Basin. Photo: NASA

COLUMN: The Columbia River Treaty: Dialogue through Difference Begins

The next U.S. - Canada negotiation session will take place in Nelson

  • Aug. 1, 2018 6:00 p.m.

EILEEN DELEHANTY PEARKES

Special to the Nelson Star

On August 15-16, the international negotiating team will meet formally for the second time (their first brief session was at the end of May in Washington, D.C.) It’s cause for celebration that this meeting will occur in little old Nelson, B.C.

The decision to hold a session in the upper Columbia region signals a willingness to close the gap (even a little bit) between the decision-makers and the land and resources their policies govern. All too often, North America’s landscape since colonization has been an abstract idea to those in political power. Certainly, that was still the case in the early 1960s, when governments on both sides of the boundary were designing the dams and reservoirs that today define our region. But times have changed.

A recent annual summit of the Pacific Northwest Economic Regional Foundation, held this year in Spokane, Washington in late July, provided a warm-up opportunity for place-based learning. A small portion of the sprawling agenda for this international event was carved out to include a focused discussion about the Columbia River Treaty. Remarkably, the summit included a three-day “study tour” of Grand Coulee Dam, Hugh Keenleyside reservoir, and Nakusp, B.C.

A busload of Americans attending the summit came across the boundary into this region on that study tour, to have a closer look at the upper Columbia landscape. Bravo for that!

The day in Spokane was billed as a round table listening session. About 30 pre-selected Americans and Canadians, representing various interests, assembled to each give a three-minute summary of her/his position. Over 100 others listened and observed, among them Sylvain Fabi, Canada’s chief CRT negotiator from Global Affairs, and Jill Smail, the U.S. chief negotiator from the State Department, both of whom gave brief, introductory remarks.

The array of speakers at the morning session provided a snapshot of the vast and complex web of interests surrounding the treaty and its objectives: tribal leaders from the U.S. (who continue to advocate for the needs of imperiled salmon runs); U.S. navigators (who use the lower Columbia for barging wheat and other products); U.S. irrigators (who depend increasingly on drawing water from the mid-Columbia to grow crops in the arid basin south and west of Spokane); U.S. utilities (who want to limit their contribution to the Canadian Entitlement or flood control); political leaders from both sides of the boundary whose communities have been greatly affected by treaty reservoir operations; and last but not least, Nelson’s own Greg Utzig, an ecologist and co-author of the 2011 dam footprint study. Utzig and another Nelson local Alan Thomson are currently studying the feasibility of operating the Arrow Lakes reservoir with some ecological sensitivity.

There are many takers in this speaker lineup, and few who want to give back. Though, I do see some hopeful signs. Yakama tribal chairman Jo DeGoudy asked an important question: What are our values? Canada’s lead negotiator Sylvain Fabi expressed support for salmon restoration. B.C.’s CRT executive director Kathy Eichenberger reminded those at the table that the river’s capacity is limited, and that we must all make decisions that consider future generations.

A few days later, a group of Americans crossed the boundary with a willingness to learn and understand. It’s a good start. In my own travelling and speaking, I have encountered many people living below the boundary in the Columbia basin who have only a vague understanding that the great Columbia River originates in Canada. The 50 or so politicians and community leaders who made the trip to see where the river comes from are to be commended.

They visited Syringa Provincial Park, where they heard about the reservoir and ecosystem impacts from a few well-informed Canadians in attendance. Next, they visited the confluence of the Columbia/Kootenay rivers, at Castlegar’s city park. Here, they saw a swollen Columbia, its current racing. They asked how it could be, in mid-summer? The answer: “treaty flow” required by the agreement. Arrow Reservoir stores the water. Under the treaty, it is released when Americans ask for it. The day ended with a reception at the home of MLA Katrine Conroy. The next morning, they headed to Nakusp, where they heard from Janet Spicer, whose family farm was destroyed by the treaty, and Mayor Karen Hamling, who has advocated tirelessly for economic renewal for her community.

All of this travel, sharing and listening over the past week is uplifting. The more we can all come to understand that the treaty happens somewhere, in a place that needs our care and concern, the better will be the outcome. I hope that respectful conversations will continue apace in the formal negotiating process, which is likely to be long, complex and ripe with compromise. We live in a changing world. So must the treaty change.

I encourage those Canadian readers who wish to comment to contact MLA and CRT Minister Katrine Conroy; MPs Richard Cannings and Wayne Stetski, or Sylvain Fabi from Global Affairs Canada.

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